With the start of the season fast approaching we thought it might be as good a time as any to take a look at the health of the game we all love. There will be a slightly Scottish-centric approach but we’ll also cast our eyes further afield.
The £20 million cash injection from BT was widely welcomed by Scottish fans with the SRU committed to spending most of the money developing the game more widely across Scotland. What that actually means is less clear even after the recent Scottish Rugby Board’s AGM.
There is talk of growing the game at grass roots but this is short on detail at the moment. We are promised a revolution but that does not currently extend to a New Zealand type approach to rugby with children playing before and after school and a youth system based on weight/height rather than age. Currently plans are focussed on increasing the number of state schools who include rugby as part of PE lessons. There are also changes being made to the academy structure which could well be a case of quietly shuffling the same bodies around under the banner of “progress”.
With football in a state of flux and the impact of rugby 7s at the Commonwealth Games the SRU have been handed a perfect opportunity to sell the game to the Scottish public, especially young fans. The move to broadcast games with English commentary on BBC2 Scotland is a step in the right direction but requires will on the part of the BBC and SRU to promote and talk up games being broadcast. It also relies on both Pro-Teams being competitive. More on that later.
However the influence of Scottish rugby on the world stage is practically non-existent. An article in this month’s Rugby World lists just two Scots in the top 50 influential figures in rugby. Our initial reaction was of blind fury but once we settled down we realised it was (almost) true.
There’s an argument that Ned Haig should be on that list as inventor of 7s the fastest growing branch of rugby in the world. Until you realise that Ned is dead. Long dead. The only other possible name is (not THE) Richie Gray. Gray spent a number of years working for the SRU before inventing the “Collision King” to help players perfect their positioning at the breakdown. He’s now working as a “breakdown consultant” for the Springboks and delivering impressive results. The fact he does not appear to have been given an opportunity to deliver those results closer to home is worrying.
Scotland’s low status in World rugby is concerning. We have no elite referees and have had to bring an English one to Murrayfield in the hope of getting a representative on the international referee’s Panel. Aside from John Jeffries and Dr James Robson it hard to see any Scot of influence working at the higher levels of the game. This puts Scotland in a precarious situation and we saw that during last year’s the Heineken Cup saga. The SRU’s position during the negotiations was akin to a sloth bringing a butter knife to a nuclear war. There is a risk of Scottish rugby becoming isolated and viewed as irrelevant as other countries start to compete for places at the top table.
The current state of women’s rugby in Scotland is a national disgrace. The SRU say the issues faced are such that it needs “to rebuild”. The lack of women’s sections at many clubs is shocking and can be linked directly to a lack of any real pathway for girls who want to play the game.
The SRU’s proposals for developing and rebuilding the women’s game are fairly robust with a target for two thirds of the top 40 clubs to have a women’s section within three years. However aside from a general commitment to grow the girls’ game within schools there are no plans to encourage clubs to do the same. Whilst it is early days there is also no commitment to develop any league or cup structures, at junior or senior level, beyond those that already exist.
The treatment of women in wider rugby world is shocking when compared with other sports. There is a gender pre-fix attached to everything associated with the women’s game but none for the men. Even FIFA, headed by the former president of “World Society of Friends of Suspenders”, refers to “men’s world rankings” and “women’s world rankings.” In athletics we have the men’s and women’s 100 meters and yet in rugby there is the World Cup and the Women’s World Cup. The gender pre-fix somehow cheapens the latter making it seem inferior despite the high quality of rugby played during the tournament by players who had to take unpaid leave from their main jobs.
Clubs would be unable to function if it were not for the thousands of women who play a huge role in the day to day operations or the support they give to their children and partners. And yet once a year most, if not all clubs, hold a Men’s Dinner at the end of the season excluding the vast majority of people who have made that season possible.
It’s hard to understand why this tradition persists in these more enlightened times. Such segregation has never served any practical purpose and with attendances at many of these occasions dwindling clubs are shooting themselves in the foot by not opening them up to women. If clubs are concerned that women might not appreciate the bawdy humour or behaviour at such occasions then perhaps questions need to be asked as to whether such humour or behaviour is appropriate in the first place. Or perhaps women should be given the opportunity to decide for themselves whether the jokes are funny and the behaviour appropriate.
Clubs must consider their end of season social arrangements in the coming year. If we are to grow rugby in this country and encourage children of both genders to become involved in the game then any function or arrangements which exclude half of the population have to be eradicated from clubhouses.
Scotland currently sit 8th in the men’s IRB Rankings. It’s a fairly comfortable position with Scotland unlikely to drop below 9th during the Autumn Internationals even if they end in a whitewash. However this is not entirely all Scotland’s doing.
Scotland benefit from participating in the 6 Nations and being able to potentially trade rankings points with teams above them. Countries such as Samoa, Tonga, USA, Canada, Georgia and Japan are not so lucky and have to fight for a chance to play the top nations. Samoa, Tonga and Japan have got to where they are by sheer hard work. The All Blacks gave Japan a game recently but mainly because Japan gave them a bucket load of cash. The fact the All Blacks don’t play any of the Pacific Nations is shameful. The USA has started to benefit from visits from top nations keen to crack an emerging market in world rugby and the All Blacks head there later this year, again with the promise of a huge payday. Poor Georgia can’t get a game.
Georgia are currently 15th in the IRB Rankings on 70.46 points. Italy are 14th on 70.92 points. The argument for relegation from the 6 Nations is over. The current 6 Nations Committee needs to start looking at a system of relegation and promotion. It is possible to base that on rankings (i.e. top 6 European nations) or annual relegation/promotion to the 6 Nations B. Unfortunately it comes down to money and neither the 6 Nations Committee nor broadcasters will want to see games like the Calcutta Cup disappear from the calendar. Although if Scotland continue to fail to compete, viewers will start to switch off and the financial considerations will no longer be of relevance.
The other option is a European Competition every four years in between World Cups. However the only window for this would be the autumn and it’s unlikely the top European nations will want to give up their annual chance to play the top Southern Hemisphere teams.
As discussed earlier the Women’s International side is currently in a dreadful state compared to the rest of the world. Regularly well beaten during the 6 Nations the squad did not even qualify for this year’s World Cup. The SRU says “a tougher stance should be taken with those unwilling or unable to achieve what is needed for international play.” That’s a pretty harsh threat given the way the women’s game has been treated added to the fact that players give up their own time to turn out for their country.
Elsewhere Scotland’s 7s squad continues to splutter along sparking into life intermittently. The Commonwealth Games gave the game an excellent platform and it would be great to see the SRU build on this. The fact that players on pro-contracts are being drafted into the squad shows the SRU are starting to take 7s seriously and as it is currently the fastest growing most commercially attractive branch of the game they can’t afford not to.
At the end of last season I hinted on Twitter that I was ready to nail my colours to the mast and finally choose a professional team to support. This was a source of puzzlement to many outside of Scottish rugby but it’s something many other fans have had to wrestle with since rugby turned professional.
My heart has always been with The Borders but The Borders no longer exist. People living in the north of Scotland face the same problem although there has been a superb campaign to reinstate the Caledonia Reds.
If the game is going to grow in this country then Glasgow and Edinburgh need to do more to engage fans outside both cities. Edinburgh make token forays into the Borders during pre season but more competitive games need to be taken on the road so young fans can feel some sort of connection with both pro teams. That means both teams travelling North and South during the season.
Rugby has always languished behind football in terms of popularity but with the decline of three of the country’s larger clubs there is a gap in the market that Glasgow have started to take advantage of. However Edinburgh have failed to capitalise on this and key to this is both Alan Solomon’s transfer policy and the current stadium.
Glasgow have a great stadium in Scotstoun and regularly manage to attract decent crowds. The club also has a great core of Scottish home grown players (even snapping up players cast aside by Edinburgh). Foreign signings have, on the whole, added something extra to the squad and forced incumbent players to raise their game.
Conversely Edinburgh continue to play in the vacuum of Murrayfield. The games at Meggetland at the end of last season showed that a move to an alternative venue could have great benefits in creating a far superior atmosphere but a permanent move away from the national stadium doesn’t appear to be on the cards. The club’s policy of signing South African players not good enough to play Super Rugby is frustrating especially when comes alongside the loss of Scots with genuine ability. Glasgow picked up Lee Jones and Geoff Cross at the end of last season after they were cast aside by Edinburgh. Both went on to demonstrate they have abilities far above the players they were replaced with.
In terms of the club I’ve chosen? Well if it isn’t already obvious I have gone for Glasgow. Call me a glory hunter if you will but the composition of Gregor Townsend’s squad and they style of rugby is hard to resist. Of course my first team of choice will always be Berwick RFC (no glory hunting there).
Funding for the amateur game increased to £3 million pounds this season. That’s up from £1.9 million two years ago. The reorganisation of the lower leagues has also helped smaller clubs financially by cutting out long journeys and overnight stays.
However there remains a huge gulf between the amateur and professional game with very few players making the step between the two unless it has been through an Elite Player Development contract. This should be a cause for concern. It may be possible to spot a winger or full back with potential at a young age but players in some positions, especially the front row, generally mature later in their careers. Ryan Grant was ready to give up playing a few years ago. We’re all thankful he decided to give it one last go.
The performance of Scottish teams in the British & Irish Cup exposed the weaknesses in terms of the depth and standards of the player pool in Scotland. The SRU put forward proposals to introduce a semi-professional league to try and bridge the gap but this was rejected by the clubs. There are still plans to introduce a semi professional Scottish Super League but its future hangs by a thread.
Scottish clubs have now withdrawn from the British & Irish Cup but if the SRU are to grow Scottish Rugby from grass roots that means making club rugby more attractive to both players and fans. The only way to deliver that is the top teams turning semi-professional to allow players to train more often and develop more quickly. This might seem unpalatable to purists within the game but the people who oppose the move to semi-professional rugby are the same who resisted professional rugby in this country for so long. Professional rugby in Scotland is still recovering from the unwillingness of some to embrace the change.
Club rugby cannot afford to make the same mistake.